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October 21, 2010

Hegel, On Love and Passion

Grim has been reading Hegel:

... to have thrown your whole soul into a vision of beauty, that is passion. To have passion for a woman is, then, not to have some physical longing alone; that belongs to mere appetites, which rank much lower on his scale of mind. Rather, what you have is a longing for an idea of what the woman would be if she were as perfect as you wish her to be.

Well, and she is not; so is this not a lie? And are you not betraying her, if you will not take her as she is rather than demanding some perfection no one can possess?

Here I am reminded of Cassandra's wise words, directed towards men: that biology is not an adequate excuse for bad behavior. It is not what you are that makes you worthy of love, but what you could be; and the fact of trying to be that better thing.

One of the most painful arguments I ever had was with an old and very dear friend. It happened in the 8th grade.

My friend had been a rather chubby child - not obese, but not exactly athletic either. Her vision was quite bad. In fact, she was legally blind and had worn thick glasses for as long as anyone could remember.

Until the 7th grade - the year before I moved in next door to her - she had been the frequent target of teasing, insults, and even bullying. And then something magical happened: she began to grow into a young woman, and she got contact lenses.

Suddenly, the formerly despised child found herself the object of swarms of admiring boys, many of whom had tormented her just months before. It didn't take a brain surgeon to figure out that not one of these boys liked her for the person she had always been: bright, intellectually curious, possessed of a wickedly sharp wit, but most of all a loving and tender heart.

None of these things were what drew the boys to her side like moths dancing around a brilliant candle flame. Her personality, brains and character were utterly irrelevant.

The moment I met my friend, I felt a connection with her that I have really never felt with anyone else. Our lives could not have been more different and yet on some weird level, we understood each other. At any rate, during the first year at my new school I watched her struggle to adjust to her newfound popularity. She made the cheerleading team and even the girls started to suck up to her. At times I was envious of her stunning beauty, but despite the fact that she was far prettier than I was, our friendship seemed one of equals. We balanced each other, and when everything was weighed together I didn't feel threatened by her. We even went steady with the same boys - normally something that would be the kiss of death for a friendship between two young girls. Our friendship survived and, if anything, grew even stronger for the experience.

I had always made friends at every duty station but I had never felt as close to anyone as I did to her. To this day she remains my oldest and dearest friend, though we have often gone months - years, sometimes! - without speaking to each other.

The fight was over a boy, though it did not occur in the way you might think. At the tail end of the school year, we both became aware that a boy in our class liked her very much. Unlike the boys we had both gone steady with on and off that year, this boy was not one of the cool kids. He was nice enough looking, but nothing special. You would not notice him in a crowd.

And yet, of all the boys who had chased my friend that year, I could tell that he saw who she really was. I'm certain that he wasn't exactly put off by her beauty, but to him who she was mattered, too.

And she was afraid to go out with him.

You see, she had been made fun of and ostracized all her life. The hurt of years of meanness lurked under the newly confident face she presented to the world, and the crowd she ran with were not particularly tolerant of outsiders. And so, she hesitated.

I am ashamed to say that I was not as understanding as I should have been. Like any other teen I had my share of insecurities, but I never had to put up with the abuse my friend had silently endured for so many years. And so I was impatient with her fears; to me they seemed foolish. "Who cares what those jerks think?", I said to her. "Do what YOU want to do".

And when she still hesitated, I was deeply disappointed in her. I thought she was being shallow; that if anyone on earth should have been able to look beyond the surface wrapping, she should have. Being highly intuitive and far more sensitive than I am, she sensed what I would not say and it wounded her. And so I brought the subject up with her one Friday evening when we were taking one of our nightly walks.

What she told me then has stayed with me for decades. She felt that because I was her friend, I should have taken her side unquestioningly. When I didn't do this, she felt as though I didn't care about her enough to give her my loyalty.

I tried to explain to her that my concept of friendship was different; that she would always have my loyalty and love, but that didn't mean I would always agree with her or approve of her decisions. Nor did I expect she would always approve of mine. Moreover, if I ever did something she thought was wrong I hoped she would tell me.

What I tried to explain to her then is very close to what Grim speaks of: the notion that in loving someone passionately, we don't always love who they are right now, but who they have it in them to be.

I think this is how I have always loved: not expecting perfection, nor condemning the one I love for occasionally falling short of it, but always keeping their potential in mind. I know this is why I fell in love with my husband. I saw in him, not only the young man he was then but the man he has become.

Eventually my friend did decide to go out with this young man. They dated all the way through high school. I have a photograph of them, all dressed up for Homecoming. She sent it to me after I moved away. It's my favorite picture of her because in it, she is literally glowing with happiness.

I was often foolish as a young girl, and I can't say I've outgrown the tendency as an adult. But I do try to remember that the world seems very different to others than it does to me, and vice versa. The people I've loved most in life have not been the ones who are just like me, but the ones who see things through a different lens and it is the perspective I've gained from trying to see the world through their eyes for a moment that I treasure. That difference is what they offer me, and what I most value in them.

So I don't think it's wrong to love a slightly idealized version of someone else. What seems important is that that ideal should be based upon that person's actual qualities and potential. It's no good expecting someone to be what you need them to be, because they don't exist for your benefit. And it's no good expecting them to be something they can't hope to become, because you will end up disappointed and bitter. But worse, your disappointment will wound them.

Illusions in love have value. They give us something to live up to, and there is something to be said for the knowledge that you are loved not only for who you are today, but for the promise of who you have the power to become.

Posted by Cassandra at October 21, 2010 08:39 AM

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Comments

I think you had the right of it in your description to your friend of loyalty. However I am a bit more categorical. Loyalty demands, not just allows, criticism (on the things that matter; the trivia should be left as that) where there is error. Loyalty demands unquestioning support, too, but support is not blind obedience or acquiescence; rather, it is help when, for instance, the person is attempting, or just contemplating attempting, a difficult enterprise. And it is help in the form of helping the person correct a mistake or to avoid the mistake in the first place. This can include speaking up against the person's wishes and saying things the person does not want to hear.

It isn't wrong to love a slightly idealized version of a person. Nor is it wrong to love the person as s/he is, with no idealization. The potential always is there to be better, but it's up to the person, not anyone else, to decide to achieve that improvement. Then love says, "I'll help you achieve this better, even if that help means I just stay out of your way." Part of who a person is is the presence or absence of an interest in improving. Neither is a disqualifying or qualifying criterion for worthiness of being loved.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at October 21, 2010 09:57 AM

That was the odd thing. To my mind, I *was* being loyal to her - both to what I loved in her (her kindness and perceptiveness) and to the kind of person she clearly wanted to be (someone who does the right thing as she sees it, regardless of whether others approve or not).

Where I failed her was in not trying hard enough to understand what she was struggling against. That was my weakness: a lack of understanding and compassion.

I understand now, what she was trying to say and there's more than a grain of truth in it. I think perhaps I just failed to let her know that I loved who she was at that moment just as much as I loved the more idealized notion of who she had it in her to be.

Posted by: Cassandra at October 21, 2010 11:10 AM

"Where I failed her was in not trying hard enough to understand what she was struggling against."

Unless you have been the one on the receiving end of daily, incessant bullying it's virtually impossible to truly empathize. Sympathize, yes, but even that is akin to looking through the two-way mirror of a sound-proof room. You did not fail your friend because there was no way for you to *know* until you actually saw the hurt in her eyes - a hurt that you had caused. Until that moment, you had not had the experience necessary to fully understand.
I'm glad you were able to keep your friendship, and that is has grown with you both throughout your years. That is a blessing beyond compare.
0>;~}

Posted by: DL Sly at October 21, 2010 11:25 AM

Beautiful post, Cassandra.

Posted by: david foster at October 21, 2010 11:31 AM

To my mind, I *was* being loyal to her....

And so you were, and your understanding of loyalty was more mature than hers. Her attitude, "you should have taken my side unquestioningly" reminds me of another adolescent misunderstanding, although I saw this more between boyfriend and girlfriend than in other venues. It goes, essentially, as a monologue by her: "You can't possibly love me, because you don't understand me. And you have to understand without explanation because if I have to explain it to you, it's only because you don't care." And this attitude is completely independent of any history of being bullied, it's a normal part of being an adolescent.

It's always useful to try to see the world through the other person's eyes. However, you moved next door after the period of bullying had played out and conditions on the ground had radically changed. You couldn't possibly have seen her bullied world through her eyes; all you could have seen would have been a dim reflection of that world in the damage done her in that past. If an inexperienced adolescent is capable of being that perceptive.

Indeed, her history, being so far removed from your own and your experience, left you with a very incomplete idea of who your friend was, and you could only love that imperfect idea--with all the perils flowing from the disconnect between your idea of her and who she really was.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at October 21, 2010 12:33 PM

Beautiful.

"Illusions in love have value. They give us something to live up to, and there is something to be said for the knowledge that you are loved not only for who you are today, but for the promise of who you have the power to become."

That kind of illusion can be magic, because it can bring out the best in the person who is loved. There's a cute story by Piers Anthony in the Xanth series, about a little girl named Ivy who envisions a very ordinary young man as a knight in shiny armor, and it gives him the idea to try, and show himself a better and stronger man than he thought.

Posted by: valerie at October 21, 2010 02:49 PM

Beautiful post, Cassandra, and description of loyalty. I'm happy for both of you. It's very difficult for two people, especially young people, to be "in sync" with their feelings and understandings of themselves and each other.

As you get older it can get a little easier (but that doesn't always happen fast enough to save relationships), but there are always potholes in the road that can trip you up. Sometimes, long remembered, unintended slights and misunderstood compliments can produce psychic explosions in both that leave both the parties and everyone around shaking their heads and saying "What was that about?!" Both asking for and giving forgiveness can bridge those woes (and painful they can be, indeed) and lead to the discussion that brings you back (well, there is no back in this context) brings you to a new, better, understanding.

Posted by: htom at October 21, 2010 03:40 PM

Posted by: david foster at October 21, 2010 05:11 PM

She felt that because I was her friend, I should have taken her side unquestioningly. When I didn't do this, she felt as though I didn't care about her enough to give her my loyalty.

She was expecting support, rather than a denial of her problems and feelings.

I am ashamed to say that I was not as understanding as I should have been. Like any other teen I had my share of insecurities, but I never had to put up with the abuse my friend had silently endured for so many years. And so I was impatient with her fears; to me they seemed foolish. "Who cares what those jerks think?", I said to her. "Do what YOU want to do".

The flaw wasn't that you were impatient back then. The flaw is that friends are expected to support each other. Telling someone to ignore the problems they clearly see to do what they want to do, is both unrealistic and not particularly solid in terms of planning.

The better idea would have been to recognize the problems in connecting those two social groups, the popular crowd and the new boyfriend, and figure out how to make it work by giving her your support and time.

'Who cares' is a flippant response that has an obvious counter. 'I care'. Which she obviously did.

It's always a bad idea to go charging somewhere solely based upon reckless feelings of abandon. The world is not such that everybody is as carefree as they should be. Some people worry. A lot. Others have nothing to worry about.

"that she would always have my loyalty and love, but that didn't mean I would always agree with her or approve of her decisions."

The issue isn't whether you approve of her decisions or not. The issue is whether you have the authority to tell her what to do, what to feel, and what to think.

Loyalty and love does not translate as absolute obedience, for either side.

The better alternative was not to approve things you don't really approve. But to simply help her with whatever decisions she has made. Decisions she has made. Not decisions you have made for her. In the process, guide her in fulfilling the ideal you think she should have.

People have enough stress in their lives that they don't respond positively to people shoving another agenda on their plate. Instead, they will respond positively if you help them do something they already want to do.

By help, of course, I mean reducing the stress levels by sharing solidarity, splitting time, and giving moral support or encouragement. You don't have to vigorously let her go down the path of being a mistake. Instead, alleviate her stress. If she worries about the opinions of the popular class, take care of the popular class yourself and make sure they don't speak out of turn. This gives a chance for her to change her mind as well as giving you a chance to change your mind.

After all, with enough time, anyone can find that they regret their former decisions.

Idealism does not become reality simply by demanding that it be so. It does not become real by lashing out at people and FORCING them to obey standards not of their own choosing, goals not of their own heartfelt wish.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at October 22, 2010 06:28 PM

Ymar:

When a friend ASKS you for advice, it's not authoritarian to tell them what you think.

We're talking about two 13-14 year old girls here. To speak of obedience in a situation between peers, neither of whom has the slightest ability to compel, is kind of strange.

I don't know what the deal is with this business about "lashing out" and "forcing", but I do think you need to stop projecting your feelings on a situation you obviously don't understand.

Posted by: Cassandra at October 22, 2010 06:47 PM

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